College dorms a new front in U.S. battle over transgender rights

Sat Jun 11, 2016 6:48am EDT
 
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By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - As lawmakers across the United States battle over whether to allow transgender Americans to use public restrooms that match their gender identities, universities are scrambling to ensure that dorms meet federal standards.

At a time of year when the nation's 2,100 residential colleges and universities are sorting out student housing assignments, they also are poring over a May letter from the Obama administration that thrusts them into the national debate on transgender rights.

Known as the "dear colleague" letter, it makes clear that federal law protects transgender students' right to live in housing that reflects their gender identity.

Schools that fail to provide adequate housing to transgender students could face lawsuits or the loss of any federal funding they rely on.

Although hundreds of universities had begun to offer gender-inclusive housing in response to student demand in recent years, many are now reviewing or expediting their plans so they can provide the option to incoming students for the first time this fall.

The policies are intended not only to accommodate transgender students, university officials say, but to help siblings, gay students who want to live with straight friends of the opposite gender or simply groups comfortable with mixed-gender housing.

The May letter from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice invoked Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds.

"Title IX and the 'dear colleague' letters make all of us, all institutions, more accountable for students who may be on the margins," said Darryl Holloman, dean of students at Georgia State University, which offered gender-inclusive housing options for the first time in the 2015-2016 academic year.   Continued...

 
A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access is seen in the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina May 3, 2016.   REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File photo